All Commentary
Saturday, September 1, 1990

School Budgets and Town Meetings

Mr. Boehm is an airline pilot living in Bedford, New Hampshire.

In New Hampshire a popular topic of conversation during the first months of the new year is the local school budget. Newspapers report frequently on the heated proceedings of town meetings where school budgets are dis cussed. Television coverage shows that these gatherings can become highly emotional as aggravated citizens express their concerns. There is much gnashing of teeth.

There always are many in attendance who favor increasing the school budget for a variety of well-intentioned reasons. They are quick to express their opinions, but sometimes are intolerant of the views of Others. Often these people have children in the school system, or work in the schools as teachers or support staff.

A growing number of citizens are tiring of ever-escalating property taxes and are bravely beginning to attend these meetings. They usually are fewer in number than the first group, frequently are the recipients of shrill denunciations of their lack of “charity,” and generally are held to be beyond the pale. But many, quite simply, no longer can afford to pay their school taxes. In some towns, such as Bedford, these people are forming taxpayer associations. They want to control spending. They also resent the arrogant indifference of the school board to their differing point of view.

There is a third group of citizens who for a variety of reasons choose not to participate in school-budget politics. That these people’s rights often aren’t even considered doesn’t seem to evoke any concern. After all, goes the popular retort, they can vote too.

So, what’s the problem?

A frequent result of the voting process is the redistribution of wealth. This occurs not only in the case of schooling but in most issues that have become politicized. The government that is supposed to protect our rights equally now takes from one group to give to another. As our appetite for special-interest politics grows, so does the plunder that supports it. True, this democratic process is a more civil way to settle disagreements than resort ing to brute force. But, as James Madison warned in The Federalist, democracy can and often does produce results similar to the physical violence it seeks to avoid. The tyranny of the dictator is replaced by the tyranny of the masses when anything can be made legal by voting. It seems we should be frequently reminded that the voting process doesn’t necessarily make something right, only legal.

History reports that our Founding Fathers held an underlying assumption when they formed our democratic, constitutional republic: We are a moral people, and this morality is based on the commandments of God. Therefore it cannot be imprudent to say that the degree to which we will improve our political situation is likely to be proportional to the degree we once again permit ourselves to be influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Bible reminds the faithful to be “the salt of the earth and the light unto the world.” We are to reflect God’s love as we interact with the world. This seasoning role certainly extends to the realm of politics. Our instruction remains the same. St. Matthew recorded the Great Commission from our Lord at the end of his Gospel.

The Bible teaches that responsible behavior primarily requires remembering our obligations to God and to our neighbors. Indeed virtually every religion teaches its faithful to love one’s neighbor as oneself. St. Paul reminds the Romans: “Love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:10) We are asked not to do to our neighbor that which we do not wish done to ourselves. The Bible tells us that the main reason for government is to restrain the irresponsible or whoever wishes to diminish the liberty of another.

Before running down to the next town meeting, perhaps we first should make sure of the responsibilities we have to our neighbors: to love them, to forgive them, to pray for them, and to refrain from interfering with their ability to enjoy the same rights which issue equally to all. Forcing one’s neighbor to pay for something other than the rightful role of government is not love. We are instructed not to judge our neighbor’s lack of charity; rather, we are asked to set a better example and increase our own charitable efforts.

Good Intentions Are Not Enough

Given this, what subjects should be considered at a town meeting? The proposals from those of good intentions are never-ending. So the primary question becomes: Does the subject in question involve a legitimate role of government? Our good intentions are not enough. Scripture teaches that government is to be limited in power and is created primarily to regulate relations among the people of a fallen world. The functions of government are few: to maintain order, to protect life and property, and to provide justice. Quite simply, this involves little more than the operation of a police force and courts of law. This is what is Caesar’s. The list is amazingly short and most definitely does not include such items as health, education, or welfare, to name just a few.

The skeptic will ask: How do you propose to replace the services the government provides? Doesn’t the government do for us many things we can’t do for ourselves? Beyond its rightful role, about the only thing the government can do for us that we cannot is legalize that which is wrong. As F. A. Harper was quoted in the March 1966 Freeman: “The government . . . cannot possibly do anything that people can’t do for themselves, for the simple reason that people comprise all that is government. Government is manned by the very same persons whose deficiencies are presumed to disappear when combined into a legal structure with bureaucratic, political trappings—a process which makes an ordinary person, if anything, less able than before to accomplish things.”

The school issue, like all other issues that exceed the proper role of government, is not a budgetary problem nor is it a problem solvable by electing better representatives or instituting better government controls. Schooling simply is not a proper function of government. The involvement of government in matters beyond its proper role produces a coercive monopoly of special interests and privileges. This is a perversion of justice, for the only way the government can create entitlements is to take from one to give to another. In doing this, the government must forsake its rightful responsibilities.

The irony of this situation is the predictable outcome—mediocrity. An unhampered market stimulates competition. Economics, the study of human action, shows the result of competition to be higher quality goods and services for the lowest possible price. The current national schooling crisis is an excellent case in point. The facts are these: We have a monopoly school system; we are being forced to support it; it is by recent government admission mediocre; and it is widely described as overly expensive. Were this monopoly eliminated, the quality of schooling would improve dramatically and the price of it would decrease. Educators could teach whatever they wished, but their ability to stay in business would be determined by the sovereign of the market—the consumer, not Caesar.

At town meetings we should be discussing how to return government to its rightful role. Instead of talking about the upcoming school budget, we should be discussing how to get government out of the business of schooling and all the other places into which it wrongfully intrudes.